Officials at a respected private school in Charleston, S.C., have publicly apologized for a teacher’s past sexual molestation of male students and set up a counseling program for his victims, as part of a settlement of nine outstanding lawsuits relating to the abuse.
The Porter-Gaud School reached the settlement shortly after a state jury late last month found the school and two of its former administratorsboth of whom are deceasednegligent in their handling of abuse complaints arising from incidents that occurred in the 1970s and early ‘80s. The jury awarded Harold Glover, a victim’s father, $105 million in that case, a figure that the plaintiff’s lawyer said far exceeded the amount his client would actually be able to collect.
The Glover case was among nine lawsuits covered by the settlement, which a state judge approved on Nov. 9. Although the financial terms were not disclosed, the school’s insurance is limited to $250,000 per incident. Its insurance on the estates of the late administrators is capped at $2 million. (“Jury Awards $105 Million in Teacher-Student Abuse Case,” Nov. 8, 2000.)
At a press conference held Nov. 13, Porter-Gaud officials said they wanted to move beyond a “painful chapter” in the school’s history.
“We feel deep regret,” said Charles H. Wendell, the chairman of Porter-Gaud’s board of trustees, in the school’s public apology. “We are profoundly sorry for the pain of all who have been affected by these terrible events. Our heart and our apologies go out to each individual, each family. Neither the students nor the families were responsible for the abuse suffered by them as a result of the despicable actions that occurred.”
In April of last year, a judge sentenced former teacher Edward Fischer to 20 years in prison in connection with 13 sexual-abuse charges. Mr. Fischer later admitted to having victimized at least 39 boys, including more than 20 from Porter-Gaud, during his 40-year teaching career.
Mr. Fischer had worked at Porter-Gaud as a physical science teacher and athletics adviser from 1972 to 1982. After that, he worked for other private schools as well as a public high school in Charleston.
As part of the settlement, the school agreed to establish a fund through the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston for counseling services to students who were victims of Mr. Fischer’s but were not involved in the lawsuits.
Prevention Steps Taken
In an effort to make the school a model for abuse-prevention policies, Headmaster Stephen R. Blanchard said Porter-Gaud was setting up a hot line for reporting abuse and was hiring a full-time counselor. The school is also revamping its policies on sexual abuse and harassment and is holding training sessions for staff members on those topics. Staff members will be evaluated annually by both their peers and students, and new hires at the school will undergo criminal-background checks, the headmaster said.
“I am relieved to have this resolved,” Mr. Blanchard added.
Mr. Blanchard said the years of publicity about Mr. Fischer’s abuse had not hurt the 862-student school’s image as a strong academic institution. In fact, he said, applications are up 9 percent from last year, and inquiries are up about 21 percent.
“We don’t know how all of this has affected us yet,” Mr. Blanchard said. “I think it is too early to tell.”
In late October, the state court jury found that the two late administrators, former Principal James Bishop Alexander and former Headmaster Berkeley Grimball, were negligent for not stopping the abuse.
When Mr. Fischer was quietly asked to resign from Porter-Gaud after a sex-abuse complaint, Mr. Alexander helped him get another job at a private school. Similarly, Mr. Grimball wrote Mr. Fischer a letter expressing appreciation for his work at Porter-Gaud and offering to help him in the future, according to witness testimony.
Nationally, the problem of schools discreetly helping school employees suspected of abusing students to obtain jobs elsewhere has received increased visibility in recent years. (“‘Passing the Trash’ by School Districts Frees Sexual Predators To Hunt Again,” Dec. 9, 1998.)
A spokeswoman for a victims’ advocacy group said last week that she hadn’t heard of a settlement in a case involving abuse by school employees that contained nonfinancial provisions—such as those setting up the victims’ counseling—as strong as those in the Porter-Gaud case.
“I think this is great,” said Mary Ann Werner, the founder of Survivors of Educator Sexual Abuse and Misconduct Emerge, or SESAME, based in New York state.
Gregg Meyers, a lawyer for the Porter-Gaud victims who is also a member of the Charleston school board, predicted that the case would have a positive impact on how other schools handle cases of sexual abuse by employees.
“Everybody in the schools community has paid close attention to Porter-Gaud twisting in the wind,” he said. “Too often, the first impulse of a school is, ‘We don’t want to get sued by the teacher.’ I tell them they are going to get sued either way.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as S.C. School Settles Teacher Sex-Abuse Cases